How important is engaging in science research in HS?

God how I love this post!

1 Like

Sometimes tt’s the colleges that are doing it, and not that they want to add stress intentionally, but that’s maybe how students are interpreting it. I’ve posted these before, the quote from MIT adcoms at science fairs and the Crimson article on ISEF winners. The Crimson article said that 25% of ISEF winners were at Harvard, extending what they did in high school. Most of these winners are unhooked, and for them, you’ll take a 25-30% admit rate any day. Here’s the MIT full quote for context:

“As I said, there were 22 finalists at ISEF 2016 who will be enrolling at MIT. I always hesitate to post these kinds of things on the blogs because I don’t want people to mistakenly think they have to do (or do well at) ISEF to get admitted to MIT. In this case, a) since we admitted these students before they went to ISEF, hopefully it’s evident, from the perspective of naive causality, that it isn’t because they went to ISEF, and b) I think it’s pretty cool that we have so many internationally renowned researchers in the Class of 2020, so I wanted to recognize them.”

Students will take the 22 finalists enrolling and the “it’s cool that we have many internationally renowned researchers” and think it’s important to adcoms.

“I would not assume that research got them in.”

It may not have been the only reason, but the students that do well in these competition or olympiads can differentiate themselves but it is not causation as you pointed out, and the MIT blog is clear to point out.


Science research can absolutely benefit you in college admissions, but you should only do it if you are genuinely interested in it. It’s important that you can tell a story about why you did it in your essays if you want to make it an integral part of your application. If you don’t want to make it a big part of your story, I don’t think you should do it as a checkmark. There are other things you could do that are more “efficient” in terms of how it looks to an admissions officer.

I did research for the past couple years at my state flagship. I used to stay up until 3 AM on my phone reading on PubMed about skeletal dysplasia because I was genuinely interested in it. I memorized almost my entire AP Biology textbook for fun–yes I’m a nerd for bio, but I am 100% serious when I say you should only do it if you genuinely want to.

Unless you’re in an ultra-competitive setting, it should benefit you in differentiating yourself from other students.

1 Like

A few points:

(1) I interviewed a lot of kids aspiring to go to MIT who were very proud of their “research”, but could not clearly explain what they did, why they did it, what they learned from the experience and so on. None of them got in. Some were published, which is a sad commentary on authorship requirements.

(2) I have a friend, college professor, who was placed under a lot of pressure to take a donor’s kid into her lab and to publish a paper with the kid as first author. She told the dean where he could stick it. Tenure is a beautiful thing.

If a student wants to use research as an important part of the admissions package, they should be able to clearly answer the questions “what did you do?” and “what did you learn?”

(3) A lot of research is not glamorous. “This is a photomultiplier tube. It turns low levels of light into electrical signals. We need to test this one to make sure that it meets our specifications. And when we’re done with that, we need to do it 24,999 more times.”


So very true.

Your #3 was my D21’s first experience in a lab and she was honestly just thrilled to be a part of it. She was literally putting tiny fish parts in epoxy and labeling them most of the summer for someone else to actually look at later. She then learned those samples would not actually impact any kind of reporting for several years as it was a multi year study. She was 100% okay with that and went back for more this year, but is collecting samples and supporting several ongoing projects.

Those experiences matter for future scientists. But the pressure to do world changing, original, peer reviewed published research prior to applying to undergrad is unnecessary.

I agree with you.
Padding one’s application with random low-level, or named awards “might” be understood for what it is.
Countless projects reflecting old data acquired by the mentor spoon-fed to the HS student can be presented well and score at local competitions.
Surveys done through social media can be presented in a slick way reflecting naive hypotheses, not much more sophisticated than an exploding volcano—and can win an award at a local competition.
As a volunteer judge in the trenches, it is frustrating to see how projects presented in a slick way get scored very high. I have to trust that the highest ranking of the lower awards does not equate with the true star, who created an ISEF-winning project.
In sum, the process of allowing kids a forum to present their research is good. There are fledgling scientists whose interest will only grow.
And there are unfair aspects to this process eg, kids looking to check a box, who may not have acquired the data, or who can present nonsense to low-level acclaim.
Colleges must understand the variability among SciRe participants through meeting the student, or through their essays, not a list of random, inconsequential awards.

1 Like

I’m sorry but your MIT anecdote is all smoke and mirrors. T5 admissions are a total crapshoot unless you’re Malala. While admissions officers don’t compare you side by side to your peers (or atleast I don’t believe they do) they absolutely compare you to the average applicant from your region. Furthermore, T5s go MUCH more into simply selecting you based off of attributes that you can’t change than your extracurriculars. At my school, there were only 4 boys admitted into T20s (e.g. Cornell, lower-ranked T20s) while 8-12 girls got into HYPSM, UChicago, Columbia.

Your intangible attributes dictate whether or not science research will benefit your application. Woman in STEM, low-income, etc. It is all based off of the story that the admissions officers extrapolate from the application they get.

This is inaccurate.

There are a set of awards where those receiving those awards are admitted at very high rates, like 60%.


I guess you could say it’s not a crapshoot for top private high schools, legacies, etc. In reply to your awards comment, Coke Scholars is not as much of a feeder as you think it is if you stratified by certain characteristics. It is all dependent on your intangible attributes.

I have been through this process and will be headed to an ivy. My brother went through the same process and went to an ivy for undergrad and for both dental and medical school.

Edit: Coke Scholars is absolutely a feeder to T20s, should have clarified. I however do not agree that it is a definitive indicator towards T5 admission.

What is your point, exactly? That women have an easier time in admissions? Look up the acceptance rates for top unis and top LACs. Many of the top schools have almost equal rates, others have a mildly higher acceptance rate for females and others have a higher acceptance rate for males.
Did you read all of the apps? Maybe the 8-12 girls had better applications than the boys who did not receive HYPSM acceptance, such as being able to explain their research or other ECs in a more meaningful way in essays/ interviews. Whatever complicated and imperfect process admissions is, it is NOT a crapshoot.


I know them personally. Not going to go into more depth but certain hooks such as Questbridge, etc. Not going to say more because I don’t want to get doxed.

another edit: I highly recommend you read the book named “Who Gets In and Why” by Jeffrey Selingo.

I have. Additionally, I have been an interviewer for a top10 school for well over a decade, and have many connections with people in the know in the admissions world. Interviews and essays really do set students apart, as can research. Your presumptions are off base and frankly borderline on offensive.

As this is not a debate forum, let’s get back on topic: I agree with those others saying that how you are able to discuss your research is far more important than the precise level of research (excluding the rare geniuses who have done truly exemplary research in HS).


Might I remind members of the forum rules: “Our forum is expected to be a friendly and welcoming place, and one in which members can post without their motives, intelligence, or other personal characteristics being questioned by others."


“College Confidential forums exist to discuss college admission and other topics of interest. It is not a place for contentious debate. If you find yourself repeating talking points, it might be time to step away and do something else… If a thread starts to get heated, it might be closed or heavily moderated.”

Congratulations! I assume that means you are accepting Cornell TO CALS? Tough year and a lot to be proud of.

1 Like

I am reading that book now, it is excellent—and sobering!
I share your bleary-eyes view of 2D descriptions of admissions candidates. When my dtr’s HS guidance counsellor referred her to the online Naviance platform, to get a sense for how her gpa compared to others at the schools she was looking at, I had to bite my tongue.

One of the many problems of top tier college admissions is that so many kids are the product of the “arms race” of credentials. Over 5000 students earned a perfect score on the ACT when my older kid took it, over 2/3 of UPenn’26 students” have done research.” It’s not a crap shoot, but there may be 500 unhooked applicants with ALOT of accolades for 20-30 spots in a class. The competition has become fierce.

1 Like

I don’t think it is a crapshoot to get into a T5 or a T10. Of course it is a crapshoot to get into any one particular college. You need significant internal support within the high school (takes a village wanting you to succeed), and you need significant external validation. For any tippy top kid the odds then rise to 60-80% for the entire T5 or T10 cohorts taken together. In a large statistical ensemble sense, our school rarely misses placing the correct kids at the correct tier of schools.

Of the kids that place well, perhaps all the STEM kids, and recently (for the past 5 years) the humanities kids are all doing appropriate research. This is just one part of the story.


I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. If you’re a ISEF finalist say, or have a Harvard prof interested in your work, you can explain it pretty well.

“Whatever complicated and imperfect process admissions is, it is NOT a crapshoot.”

It may not be a crapshoot but it’s perceived as one.